Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Let’s have a bit of respect around here!


This blog entry might have more relevance to my readership at Brooke Weston Academy than to my millions of my other readers.  At least the Brooke Weston people will appreciate the full irony.

Linda and I are seconded to the Ministry of Education with a very open brief.  Our main purpose is to do “capacity building” at whatever level seems appropriate.  That might mean advising Government officials on the latest thinking in teacher training, or helping to draft job descriptions for school inspectors or helping to design an inspection proforma for inspectors to use when they are watching teachers in the classroom, (or, indeed, under the tree, which is what happens in the school that is outside my office window.)

So guess what I was doing this morning?  ICT training with the young man who has the grand title of “Office Manager” in the County Education Office where I work.  Yes, ICT training, me!  This is how you open “Word”.  This is called a cursor and wherever it is flashing is where you will type.  This is how you save your document.  Now type out, 20 times “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

There are some people at the Ministry with a good level of education and the sort of skills that you might expect.  Often these are people whose parents managed to send them to Kenya or Uganda for their education while the civil war was on.  However there are others whose education was either interrupted, or indeed, wrecked by the 21 years of bitter civil war that ended in the Peace Agreement of 2005.   So there are not a few of my colleagues whose ICT skills are even more limited than mine!

This morning we had to go and see the Director of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission for an introductory visit.  We had asked a motorcycle rickshaw driver to pick us up at 8.15am.  He didn’t show up, so plan B was to grab our crash helmets and hail two boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis).  You can’t imagine how weird it looks  two white people on the backs of motorcycles wearing huge  white helmets.  There are hundreds of motorcycles on the streets, but no-one wears a crash helmet!  (We were soundly told, during our training that if we were caught on a motorcycle without a helmet, it would be the end of our placement and we would be on the next flight home.  Over the years VSO have had to deal with a number of deaths of volunteers who have been involved to bike accidents whilst not wearing helmets, so it is now a cast-iron policy….no helmet, no placement.

As we were travelling into town this morning like a couple of creatures from outer space, we saw children on their way to school, most of them carrying plastic-moulded chairs of all colours and sizes.  Some had them on their heads, others were carrying them like a rucksack, etc.  Clearly if you want a chair to sit on in school, you had better bring one with you!

I was desperate to take photos, but we have been warned that people around here do not understand the concept of taking photographs just as a souvenir of a place or its people and taking out a camera can easily lead to a confrontation.  After years of war, people are very suspicious, so our cameras are being kept out of sight at the moment, at least until we have a better understanding of what is socially acceptable.

Now, let’s see if my ICT skills will enable me to get this text onto the blog.  Fingers crossed.


Rumbek Day 1

Juba Airport is an interesting place to be at 7.00am.  The small departure hall was crammed with people going to a range of different places, both within South Sudan and beyond.  It was not at all easy to see where you had to check in or what on earth was going on.

Eventually we started to understand the system and got to the check in desk with our 85 kg of luggage in four unmanageable bags, two crash helmets, two heavy backpacks full of computers, a hard drive, cables, my solar charger, two cameras, a Kindle, an ipad , spare phones etc.  Life was a whole lot easier when I visited South Sudan for the first time forty years ago.  Most of the above had been invented!

It was at this point that I had to try and convince the check-in man that 85 kilos was not much more than the 40 kilos we were allowed between us.  After a prolonged, but friendly negotiation, the man on the desk agreed to let us take 50Kg in two suitcases and turned a blind eye to the 10kg or so that must have been in our backpacks.  He also didn’t notice the very noticeable crash helmets, which we managed to take on a cabin luggage!  In the end we had to send two bags back to the VSO office and we hope that they will turn up sometime on a freight flight.

The flight we were booked on was with an airline that is actually run and managed by the United Nations and is there to serve the travel needs of aid agencies and other humanitarian organisations.  In the queue I met three men from OXFAM who were flying to Rumbek to meet with the Programme Officer who is based here.

The plane held 38 passengers and had propellors!  It’s been years since I flew in a plane with propellors.

We arrived in Rumbek about  10.30am.  An unsurfaced airstrip, but nevertheless a perfectly good landing.  The arrivals hall was a large tree to which everyone’s luggage was delivered in a pick-up truck.  Gradually all the other passengers were picked up by whoever they were there to see, and at the end there was Linda, me, two huge bags, two backpacks full of electronic wizardry and two crash helmets stuck under the tree.  Welcome to Rumbek.

We had expected the Min of Ed to meet us, but clearly that message didn’t get through.  Eventually after a call to the guest house into which we were booked, we were picked up in a battered old minibus that I am sure had not been used for years.  The back of the bus was swathed in cobwebs like Miss Haversham’s room in Great Expectations.  The driver had certainly never driven the vehicle before, but hey, This is Africa… and we finally got here.

Rumbek, even in this ‘winter’ season is hot!  We have no electricity in our room, so sleeping might be interesting tonight.

It wasn’t me.

The dongle just refused to upload the promised photo.  Maybe next time if I can piggy-back on somebody’s wi’fi.


Juba Day 10. Raining again

Yesterday I took my first ‘Boda Boda’ journey. See photo. Sitting on the back of a motorbike is the easiest way to get around in Juba, but it can be a hair-raising experience, especially at rush hour. My driver, Ismail, was very unusual in that he was actually wearing a crash helmet, which is almost unheard of here. My thinking was that if he is sufficiently concerned about his own safety to wear a helmet, then perhaps he will also look after my safety at the same time. Even so there were still moments, particularly at roundabouts, when I just shut my eyes and hoped for the best.

Given that you are reading this, you will realise that I survived the experience. Indeed, it was quite fun in a terrifying kind of way, a bit like an Alton Towers ride but in the heat of the African afternoon and without the comforting feeling that is such a thing as the Health and Safety Executive.
On another subject…
The “Big W”, for most of my former students of German, was a well-known concept. It referred to the list of Question words that students had to learn, ‘wer’, ‘wie’, ‘warum’,….’who’, ‘how’, ‘why’, etc.
For the past two days I have been undergoing “Security and Safety Training”, and the idea of the “Big W” has taken on a whole new meaning for me.
The key to security is knowing what the situation is on the ground in the area where you are working. Therefore it is important that if you are involved in a security incident, you report it to the Security Working Group so that they can inform everyone else that there has been an incident in that area.
So from now on the “Big W” for me refers to the list of thing you are supposed to report, if there is an incident:-
• What happened?
• Who was involved?
• When did it happen?
• Where did it happen?
• What action have taken?
• What do you need now?
Inevitably, the Security training was a bit scarey. The organisation that delivered it, (just google REDR if you’d like to know who they are), trains people to go into conflict areas that are a lot more insecure to the one we are heading for. However, they were very keen to make sure that they had covered every possible eventuality, so we now know the effective range of a rocket propelled anti- tank weapon and what to do if someone throws a grenade at us. Just hit the floor, protect your sensitive parts and hope.
Our trainers had worked in Somalia where such attacks are not unknown. Fortunately, there have been no such incidents so far in South Sudan, so I am hopeful that my new-found skills will not be needed.

Monday 20th August Juba

 Day 4 in Juba.


Yes we are finally here, and apart from a six hour delay in Nairobi because South Sudan changed its entry regulations a couple of days ago which meant that our travel documents were not in order, the  journey was relatively trouble free.

In fact it was quite a welcome episode of peace and quiet having to sit in Nairobi Airport doing nothing after the past few weeks which have been the busiest  I can remember. We have succeeded in letting our house in Northampton, but unfurnished.  All of our furniture has either gone to our son in Sheffield, our daughter in London, the British Heart Foundation shop or Northampton tip.  I’ve hired a total of four vans on different occasions and driven hundreds of miles.  Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that I’m not 25 any more.

Juba is a fairly scruffy sprawling town made up of street after street of little shops and very few tarmac-ed roads, which means that when it rains everything gets extremely muddy.  Because the country is so new and there have been problems over the export of oil, there has not yet been much building in the capital, but watch this space.  My guess is that this place will look very different in a few years time.

We are currently undergoing training at the VSO office and when we arrived this morning there was a beautiful blue sky.  As I write this, the sky has turned a strange shade of very dark grey, there  is plenty of  thunder and lightning and my guess is that in a very few minutes there will be torrential rain.  Pity, because our next training session is supposed to be at the British Embassy which is apparently twenty minutes walk away.

Internet connection from the VSO office is very good, but I have no idea what it will be like when we get to Rumbek.  I am told I have to buy a “dongle”, but I have no idea what to do with it.  Dongle it, I suppose.  Keeping up the blog is going to be a bit hit and miss until we get to Rumbek and see what is possible.


Guess what?  It’s pouring with rain!

D-Day minus 9 August 6th


Let me introduce you to “Little Sun.”  At the prompting of a friend in Berlin, we made our way last week to the Tate Modern to see what we thought was going to be an exhibition by an Icelandic artist called Olafur Eliasson.  Actually it turned out not to be an exhibition but a ‘light event’ that only takes place in the late evening at the weekend, so we are going back this weekend, having bought our Little Suns, which we need to have to get into the event.

I can recommend, if you’d like to know more.  Suffice it to say that our new solar lamp will be very useful in South Sudan when the lights go out!  As indeed will the solar charger that my colleagues gave us as a leaving present fom Brooke Weston. – (yes I have tried it out and I did get it to work… honest!)

While we were at the Tate, we stumbled across another ‘art event’ which was taking place in the empty turbine hall. It started off with about 70 people walking slowly from one end of the hall to the other, past anyone who happened to be in the way.  Then they began running and eventually they started to mill around like the starlings over Brighton West Pier, before it was destroyed.

Every so often someone would break off from the group and strike up a conversation with anyone who was standing around.  One young woman came up to me and told me of the problems she was having with her flatmate, a young man shared a childhood memory of being on holiday in Spain, an older man told us about how difficult it was between him and his father when he realised that all he wanted to do in life was to dance.  His father was a Methodist minister and could not get his head around his boy being a dancer.

A fascinating event which is happening every day from now until October 28th.  Every morning at 10.00am (I think).  Check out “These Associations” on line.  Well worth a visit.

Preparations for departure continue.  We sell the car on Wednesday, which is the day that British Heart Foundation comes to collect all the furniture that no-one else wanted.  So there goes the tele and the music centre then!

BY THE WAY>>>>>>  Can I just point out the the strap line about Cat’s Pajamas is nothing to do with me.  I do know how to spell pijamas, pygymas, pujamas, whatever.     It’s part of WordPress’s self glorification.  If anyone know how I can get rid of it, please let me know. 

D-Day minus 10 August 5th

OK, so the furniture has now gone.  My career as a removal man can come to an end, especially after the brand new Mercedes van that we took up to Sheffield on Friday broke down and we had to be rescued by a Mercedes mechanic who had our van taken away in a big rescue truck.  We eventually came back to Northampton in a car provided by the van hire company.

All eyes are now focussed on a week on Wednesday… oh yes and what to do with the remaining stuff left in the house and the car outside.  Oh yes and what we are going to actually pack and how we will get it all to Rumbek.

A few days ago VSO organised a conference call which involved about eight volunteers who are about to leave for South Sudan, four VSO staff from London and Alice, the VSO Director from Juba.

It was a very good opportunity to ask questions and clear up any remaining doubts.  Alice’s assessment of the security situation was quite reassuring. She is obviously able to get around Juba relatively easily even after dark and love living there.  Her guess was that Sudan and South Sudan would come to an agreement over the oil reserves in time for the UN-imposed deadline of August 2nd, but that there would be a lot more arguing before things start to improve.  This is indeed what happed and last night an agreement was announced saying that Sudan would impose $9.00 per barrel on the oil passing through their pipeline instead of the £39.00 that was the cause of the suspension of production.  Interesting times.  Fingers crossed.

Our accommodation in Rumbek is still under discussion. but VSO is well aware of the need for our housing to be secure and, basically, we just have to keep our wits about us and be careful.  Apparently we will be getting from Juba to Rumbek in a light aircraft as the roads are pretty impassible until the rains finish.  How cool will that be!

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